By John Minto

12 Jan, 2023


The swearing-in of the new far-right Israeli government means New Zealand must reassess its policy towards the Middle East.

Like most Western governments, and indeed most Western media, we have preferred to avoid the issue because it’s been made uncomfortable to talk about and seemingly difficult to deal with. However, we can no longer look the other way.

New Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared his top priority is to build more illegal Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land. He says he wants to “advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel – in the Galilee, Negev, Golan Heights, and Judea and Samaria”. These are the Biblical names for the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

New Zealand, like the rest of the world, has opposed these illegal settlements for several decades as an “obstacle to peace” which undermines a so-called “two-state solution”. But no government has taken effective action to stop Israel. Now, more than 500,000 Israelis live in illegal settlements on Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.

New Zealand and the United Nations spoke out on this in 2016.

Under the previous John Key-led National government, New Zealand co-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution 2334 which declared these illegal settlements “a flagrant violation under international law” and said they must “immediately and completely cease”.

Now in 2023, the new Israeli government has announced its top priority is to expand these settlements.

As a small country, we talk about supporting a rules-based international system where international law and United Nations resolutions have a central role in moderating the behaviour of states that abuse human rights.

We operate sanctions of various kinds against several countries based on their abuses of human rights, most notably Russia over its illegal invasion and occupation of Ukraine. But we and the rest of the world have never imposed sanctions on Israel. This approach is the sole reason Israel’s 75-year-old military occupation of Palestine continues. It’s also the reason it refuses to allow Palestinian refugees to return and why it has been able to extend legalised discrimination against Palestinians.

Palestinian fears for the new government are well founded. Israel’s new Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is an avowed supporter of anti-Palestinian terrorism who has expressed admiration for Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish Israeli man who killed 29 Palestinians in a shooting at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994.

We have had our own deadly terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch in which 51 New Zealanders (including six Palestinian New Zealanders) were killed. Why would we have relations with a Government whose senior leadership includes Ben-Gvir, who for many years had a picture of the mosque terrorist Goldstein on his living room wall?

To emphasise the trouble ahead, shortly before he was sworn in as Minister of National Security, Ben-Gvir described an Israeli soldier as a hero after the soldier was videoed shooting to death a 22-year-old Palestinian, Ammar Mefleh, at point-blank range – an incident widely described as an assassination.

Within days of his appointment, Ben-Gvir led an incursion into the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in a provocative, confrontational move that was condemned around the world.

With Ben-Gvir now setting the policies and practices for Israeli soldiers in their dealings with Palestinians, the situation can only get worse.

Last year was the deadliest year since 2005 for Palestinians killed under Israeli occupation. Earlier in December, the United Nations reported that 150 Palestinians had been killed in the occupied West Bank by Israeli forces, including 33 children.

The report called out Israeli violence, saying: “We remind Israel that pending the dismantlement of its unlawful occupation, Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory must be treated as protected persons, not enemies or terrorists.”

The most important lesson from the past 75 years is that rational discussion with Israel on its human rights abuses has never worked. Accountability actions are essential.

In our Government’s reassessment of policy towards the Middle East, we must also look carefully at the numerous comprehensive, detailed reports from the past three years.

Alongside Palestinian groups, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s largest and most respected human rights group, B’Tselem, have all declared Israeli policies as apartheid. B’Tselem summed it up with the title of its 2021 report, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”.

The new Israeli government has declared its intention to accelerate its policies against Palestinians.

It’s time to call in Israel’s free pass. It’s time to impose consequences.

  • John Minto is national chair of the Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa.